The paradox of passion and rest...

"After everything has been said and done," observes the late Henri Nouwen in an overview of
the art of spiritual direction, he concludes: "what we have to offer is our authentic selves in relationship to others. What matters most, what transforms, is the influence of a humble, vulnerable witness to the truth."

Therefore, the essence of spiritual direction is the quality of witness, and witness is the proclamation of what "we have heard and seen with our own eyes, what we have watched and touched with our own hands. (I John 1:1)

I've been thinking a lot these days about the connection between authenticity and presence as the core of sharing life's pilgrimage with another as a spiritual friend. Fourteen years ago I left the spiritual direction doctor of ministry program at San Francisco Theological Seminary because I sensed that my calling at the time was not focused upon individuals but groups - or to be more precise - upon the congregation. Even though I was personally hungry to go deeper into the one-on-one ministry of spiritual friendship, my public identity suggested it was wiser to defer this feast for another time. And in retrospect, it was the right call.

Fourteen years later, however, with a profound sabbatical rest under my belt and time to go deeper into the wisdom of contemplation, that call is changing. More and more, not only am I practicing a time of daily quiet and refreshment in prayer, but I am curious to explore sharing the importance of this commitment with others one-to-one. Like playing music in community with those I respect and love, the act of helping one another "convert our loneliness into solitude" is starting to take shape and form within. Nouwen puts it like this concerning solitude:

A life without a lonely place, that is, a life without a quiet center, easily becomes destructive. When we cling to the results of our actions as our only way of self-identification, then we become possessive and defensive and tend to look at our fellow human beings more as enemies to be kept at a distance than friends with whom we share the gifts of life. In solitude we can slowly unmask the illusions... and discover in the center of our self that we are not what we can conquer, but what is given to us. In solitude we can listen to the voice of the One who spoke to us before we could speak a word, who healed us before we could make any gesture to help, who set us free long before we could free others and who loved us long before we could give love to anyone. It is in solitude that we discover that being is more important than having and that we are worth more than the result of all our efforts... Our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared.

The ancient prophetic poet Isaiah put it like this: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and trust shall be your strength. (Isaiah 30:15) Oddly, David Brooks' most recent column about Lady Gaga and artistic passion helped all of this come together for me. At a recent dinner sponsored by Americans for the Arts, Lady Gaga was honored along with Herbie Hancock, Sophia Loren and others. He wrote: when she remembered her childhood dreams she said: 

“I suppose that I didn’t know what I would become, but I always wanted to be extremely brave and I wanted to be a constant reminder to the universe of what passion looks like. What it sounds like. What it feels like." That passage stuck in the head and got me thinking. When we talk about living with passion, which is sort of a cliché, what exactly do we mean? I suppose that people who live with passion start out with an especially intense desire to complete themselves. We are the only animals who are naturally unfinished. We have to bring ourselves to fulfillment, to integration and to coherence. Some people are seized by this task with a fierce longing.

What a brilliant summary of the call of the Lord in our hearts, minds, souls and flesh: seized with a fierce longing. As Nouwen notes elsewhere, this is the work of ministry - a fierce longing to "help others open their eyes and ears, so to speak - to make what is cloudy and opaque clear and beautiful" - so that they, too know that "God is not against us, but for us; not far from us, but with us; not outside of us, but deeply within." Passion is what we are witnesses to - a love that is greater than ourselves - a truth deeper than all our lies, fears, shame and wounds. Brooks goes on to suggest that those living into their deepest truths:

They construct themselves inwardly by expressing themselves outwardly. Members of the clergy sometimes say they convert themselves from the pulpit. By speaking out their faith, they make themselves faithful. People who live with passion do that. By teaching or singing or writing or nursing or parenting they bring coherence to the scattered impulses we are all born with inside. By doing some outward activity they understand and define themselves. A life of passion happens when an emotional nature meets a consuming vocation. Another trait that marks them is that they have high levels of both vulnerability and courage. As Martha Nussbaum wrote in her great book “Upheavals of Thought,” to be emotional is to attach yourself to something you value supremely but don’t fully control. To be passionate is to put yourself in danger.

Living with this danger requires a courage that takes two forms. First, people with passion have the courage to dig down and play with their issues. We all have certain core concerns and tender spots that preoccupy us through life. Writers and artists may change styles over the course of their careers, but most of them are turning over the same few preoccupations in different ways. For Lady Gaga fame and body issues predominate — images of mutilation recur throughout her videos. She is always being hurt or thrown off balconies. Passionate people often discover themselves through play. Whether scientists, entrepreneurs, cooks or artists, they explore their issues the way children explore the possibilities of Play-Doh. They use imagination to open up possibilities and understand their emotional histories. They delight in new ways to express themselves, expand their personalities and move toward their goals.

Then he offers us three clues about why passionate creativity is vital:

+ First, the integration of play and imagination with our life's calling turns our faith into flesh. It is vulnerable and honest, imperfect and changing, accessible and real.

+ Second, this quest moves beyond reason and the confines of professionalism into authentic living.

People with passion are just less willing to be ruled by the tyranny of public opinion. As the saying goes, they somehow get on the other side of fear. They get beyond that fog that is scary to approach. Once through it they have more freedom to navigate. They opt out of things that are repetitive, routine and deadening. There’s even sometimes a certain recklessness there, a willingness to throw their imperfect selves out into public view while not really thinking beforehand how people might react. 

+ And third passionatecreativity pushes us to ask ourselves: who would you be and what would you do if you weren't afraid?

Jazz master, Wayne Shorter, answered this question perfectly when he told Wynton Marsalis: "Play the way you want the world to be!" This is the fierce longing of our souls. When we give ourselves time, space and courage to be seized by it, our lives become full, rich and creative. Anything less feels incomplete and even deadening to me.  The paradox of this long, strange trip is that passion and creativity is evoked in quietness and rest. - and we are saved. 


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